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A man of his word

I’m sitting here in what could very well have been Southern Canada, but for a man of his word.

In 1778, the British controlled all of the Northwest Territory, comprising present day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  Their primary seat of government was at Detroit, and their method of enforcement was through alliances with local Indian tribes, who felt squeezed out of their ancestral hunting grounds by encroaching American settlers; they easily dominated the French who had previously settled the area to ply the fur trade, but failed to win their hearts and minds, and thereby hangs this tale.

With the encouragement of the British at Detroit, the Indians were regularly raiding settlements in Kentucky, then part of Virginia.  They didn’t need much encouragement, at that, since this had comprised some of the richest hunting and fishing grounds they had known, increasingly being divided and fenced off by Euro-American farmers from the East.  Naturally, this didn’t sit well with these same settlers.

Just a reminder: North America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War at the time, so any excuse for belligerence was more than acceptable.

I suspect the rebels in the East would have been prepared to write off the Northwest Territory; their armies had all they could manage as it was.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, a young officer named George Rogers Clark persuaded Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia, to back a secret plan: Clark would recruit and train a militia of Kentuckians, known locally as Long Knives for their swords and bayonets, and they would advance on Kaskaskia on the Mississippi, just South of St. Louis, and from there take the lightly held French towns of Cahokia and Vincennes, the latter being the venue for this tale of intrigue.

All went according to plan.  In spite of having been able to recruit a measly 150 men, Clark took his objectives easily, primarily because of the element of surprise, and the fact that the French inhabitants didn’t much care for the Brits anyway.  He returned to Kaskaskia, satisfied.

But, word gets around, doesn’t it, and soon made its way to British General Henry Hamilton, the governor of the territory, at Fort Detroit, and he led a large contingent of soldiers South to Vincennes, and retook it.  Clark, back at Kaskaskia, had no inkling of this, and was in fact busy recruiting for a march on Detroit, where he would have easily been picked off by Hamilton’s troops from the flanks.

Enter Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo, a Sardinian and sometime Spanish soldier who had set up shop in St. Louis as a fur trader.  Vigo was at Vincennes, by some accounts sent as a spy by Clark, and by others on his own account as a fur trader.  Vincennes, Indiana is a sleepy backwater on the Wabash River today, but in the 18th century had been a vital link between the French interests in the Great Lakes and their colony at New Orleans, so his presence there was plausible.

In any case, Hamilton smelt a rat and had Vigo arrested before he could return to St. Louis. This didn’t sit well with the local French population, however, who threatened to withhold vital supplies unless Vigo was released.  Hamilton made the best of it by letting Vigo leave Vincennes, but not before extracting a solemn vow: Vigo was not to whisper a word to the Americans at Kaskaskia about the fact that Hamilton controlled Vincennes, on his way back to St. Louis.

And the thing is, he was true to his word.  He went down the Wabash to the Ohio, West to the Mississippi, then North to St. Louis without a word.  After which, he backtracked to Kaskaskia and spilled the whole story to Clark.

The rest, as they say, is history: Clark’s daring winter passage to Vincennes, so unexpected by Hamilton that he had sent most of his troops home until Spring, and the final victory, concluding with Hamilton’s surrender.  The Northwest Territory was ceded to the Americans by the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War,  in 1783.

Thanks to a man who kept his word.  Otherwise, things might be a little different down here in Southern Illinois, eh?

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The man himself, himself.

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